Published Dec. 27, 1992|Updated July 6, 2006

About this report

Staff writer Craig Pittman has been following some Dade County families in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. This is another installment in his reports on their recovery progress.

Usually this time of year the Givens' home is ablaze with light: bulbs flashing all around the house, an electrified Santa landing his reindeer out in the yard, and three wise men, each about 4 feet tall, offering their gifts to a plastic baby Jesus.

But as of one night last week, the only light at the Givens house came from the glowing tip of George Givens' cigarette.

Givens unlocked the front door of the house where he was born, and where until recently he and his wife Carolyn were raising their three children. He just wanted to check inside the house.

Inside was no star-topped tree, no elaborately wrapped gifts, not a flicker of Christmas cheer. Nothing but darkness.

Just then a neighbor rode by on a big tricycle, carrying a radio in the basket. The radio was turned up loud and the music echoed down the street _ a mournful singer pleading, "Pleeeease, come home for Christmas . . ."

The Givenses would have liked nothing better than to come home. But four months ago their house north of Homestead was smashed by Hurricane Andrew, leaving the walls cracked, the bathroom wrecked, the roof ripped open and the kitchen demolished.

Now add Christmas to the storm's casualty list _ not wiped out, but badly damaged.

These days the Givens family is living with relatives in crime-ridden Liberty City, not the most joyous place to celebrate a holiday. And they no longer have any of those elaborate decorations to dress up the place.

"I had about $2,000 worth of Christmas decorations, and now I have not one string of lights," said Givens, 40. "My stuff either blew away or was stolen."

Under the circumstances, the Givenses didn't bother with buying a live Christmas tree this year. Instead, they bought an artificial tree, barely 2 feet tall, and set it atop the television set.

As for what went under the tree, that has shrunk too. In years past the children have gotten all kinds of gifts _ bicycles, for instance. This year 8-year-old Kimberly got a doll and 21-month-old Corey got a toy truck. Jason, 12, asked for a Super Nintendo. As of last week the jury was still out on that request.

"We're not going to spend a hell of a lot of money," Givens said, puffing on his cigarette, making the tip glow a little brighter. "The kids understand. We talked to them and told them what the situation was."

Put bluntly, this is it: A terrible catastrophe wiped out virtually everything Mommy and Daddy ever worked for, so now Daddy is working two jobs and Mommy is trying to recuperate.

At age 34, she just had her first heart attack.

"It was just a lot of stress," Carolyn said. "I was worried about the house."

There's a lot to worry about. One contractor who looked over the damage to the $26,000 house told Givens it would cost more than $50,000 to repair.

Even before the storm, the Givenses didn't have that much money. He drives a school bus and she works as a substitute teacher, neither of them a high-paying profession.

Trying to feed a family of five on their combined salaries left them with no savings, and no way to afford homeowners' insurance.

After the storm, they sought a loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government organization in charge of cleaning up the mess in Dade County. But officials at FEMA decided they don't make enough money to qualify for a loan, Givens said.

However, last month the agency did give them a grant of $12,000 _ $8,000 for the damage to their house and $4,000 for all the belongings they lost.

That's hardly enough to cover the cost of rebuilding what they had, a task Givens figures will take him at least two years, possibly three, paying for materials and help as they go along.

So to bring in some extra cash, Givens has gone back to barbering, a job he held several years ago, while maintaining his bus route.

Working two jobs keeps him on a punishing schedule. He wakes up every morning about 4 a.m., drives his bus route until 9 a.m., then cuts hair until his noon lunch break. From about 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. he drives his afternoon bus route, then goes back to the barbershop for several hours. He usually gets back to Liberty City sometime after 9 p.m., to eat supper and go to bed.

Lately, he said, his back has begun to bother him, and his legs tingle and ache, probably from the strain of his work week.

The weekend brings no rest. He's either working at the barbershop or working on the house _ digging a new foundation for the kitchen, for instance.

"This is just like building another house here, damn near from the ground up," he said.

His neighbors are going through the same thing, and some aren't too scrupulous about where they get their building materials.

A few weeks ago Givens paid $136 for a load of builder's sand. When it first arrived the pile was a huge one. But one day, when Givens went by the house, he discovered someone had stolen most of the sand, leaving him just enough to cover the ground.

That night he and his wife argued about the sand. She had warned him against having any building materials delivered to the house while no one was living there.

"He was having a hissy fit, and I said, "I told you so,' " Carolyn said. "So he said, "If you think you can do a better job, I'll step aside.' "

Fights such as that one have become more frequent since the hurricane.

"You're all tensed up, and it's headache after headache," Givens said. "Then the first time she says something to me, I'm down her throat."

Coping with life in the post-Andrew world has strained their marriage to the point where they have at times talked of separating, Carolyn said.

"We have our moments when I say, "I'm going to leave you,' " she said. "There are nights when he'll go to the couch and sleep, and nights when I'll go to the couch and sleep."

But when she had her heart attack last month, they both spent two nights in intensive care. He didn't want to leave her side.

The day of her heart attack, Carolyn had been following her usual post-hurricane schedule, one just as grueling as her husband's: fix breakfast in the morning, drop off Corey at the babysitter, take Kimberly and Jason to two different schools then go on to her own job. In the evening she would reverse that route, fighting heavy traffic that sometimes snarled for hours.

"Carolyn just couldn't take it," Givens said.

At a PTA meeting that morning, she felt fine. After lunch, she began feeling some pain, but figured it was heartburn. By the time she left work, though, "the pain was unbearable," she said.

Instead of going to a hospital, she went to pick up the children first, then took them to her mother's house before she finally drove herself to an emergency room. But insurance and hospital regulations forced her to then go to a another clinic for treatment.

Her husband met her there. By then, she said, "it was hard to breathe, and my whole left side was numb, even inside my mouth."

Emergency workers gave her oxygen and a nitroglycerin tablet, she said. The last thing she remembers is being put into an ambulance, to be taken another hospital. Then she blacked out.

"She had some kind of a seizure during the transfer," Givens said.

Although the doctor finally let her go home after a couple of days in the hospital, he won't let her go back to work until next month. In the meantime she's taking several pills each day that leave her feeling tired, and learning how to defuse the stress bomb before it goes off again.

Last week, while Carolyn was taking the children to school, she got stuck in a massive traffic tie-up. She didn't get Jason to school until 10 a.m. and Kimberly walked into class at 11:30.

Normally that would have left Carolyn angry all day. No more.

"I talked myself out of it," she said. She told herself: "I'm not going to get upset! Even though the kids are two to three hours late to school, even though a guy cuts in front of me and shoots me the finger, I'm not going to get upset!"

Instead, she said, "we sang Christmas songs and talked about what they wanted Santa Claus to bring them. Instead of material things, though, I told the kids in traffic that this year we're going to concentrate on the gift of life that we've been given."

But her husband had another gift in mind for her. The coin laundry where she washes their dirty clothes is often a hangout for drug addicts, he said, and he worries about her safety. He has nearly lost her twice already _ to the hurricane, then the heart attack.

"Man, I am so scared for her," he said.

So, he said last week, he decided to buy her a new washing machine for Christmas. That way she won't have to risk the trips to the coin laundry any more.

Of course, what she really wanted for Christmas is to move back home. But he couldn't give her that gift, at least not yet.

In the meantime, he goes on working two jobs, and doing what he can when he can to repair the house. And lately he has found himself watching the heavens for some sign of the future _ maybe not a star in the east, exactly, but something like a light in the darkness.

"I never cared about heaven or hell before," he said. "But now I watch the skies, for some reason, all the time."

After all, he pointed out, the fury of Andrew came from the sky. Maybe those brighter days he's been praying for will come from that direction too.